By CAMERON MCWHIRTER And JENNIFER LEVITZ
-style immigration bills are under attack in several states, with some of the strongest opposition to the proposals coming from agricultural interests like the cotton and peach farmers here in central Georgia.
Farmers in states from Florida to Indiana are pressuring—and in some cases persuading—state politicians to rethink proposed legislation that would authorize crackdowns on illegal immigration. They argue that the legislation will drive Mexican workers out of their states, and that there aren’t enough American workers willing to pick crops. They want legislation at the federal level, which wouldn’t favor one state over another.
At least 25 states are weighing proposals to crack down on illegal immigration and employers who hire them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona law allows police to check the immigration status of people they stop, and establishes stiff penalties for businesses or individuals who hire illegal immigrants.
“Nobody wants illegal immigrants, but when you get down to the reality of the situation, farmers have to have workers to do the job,” said Al Pearson, a peach and pecan farmer in Roberta. He said he hires only federally approved guest laborers to work his 3,600-acre farm, paying them $9.11 an hour plus benefits.
But the current federal system, involving approvals from multiple agencies, is slow and can’t process enough legal workers for the state’s large agricultural industry, he said. A bureaucratic glitch held up approvals for 100 Mexican workers for two weeks in February, setting back his tree pruning and other preparations for peach-picking season. “It frightened me because I didn’t have a plan B. I don’t have domestic workers,” he said.
“There is no farm in this county that could continue without Mexican labor,” said Robert Ray, a Crawford County farmer who for years led the agriculture committee in the Georgia House.
Indiana Sen. Mike Delph, a Republican and sponsor of Arizona-style legislation there, doesn’t buy the farmers’ arguments. “I think the dirty little secret in agriculture is that farmers intentionally hire illegal immigrants, and they hide behind the Washington, D.C., gridlock as an excuse to justify their lawbreaking,” he said.
The dust-ups over the bills are exposing a divide between two key GOP constituencies. “It’s a contest between the chamber-of-commerce Republicans and the rule-of-law Republicans,” said D.A. King, president of the Dustin Inman Society, a Marietta, Ga., group calling for stricter immigration laws. The group sells bumper stickers that declare, “We vote…and we say no to Georgiafornia!”
So far, no state has passed a law as sweeping as Arizona’s. In some states, Republican legislators have begun to weaken proposals on immigration.
Utah’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a law this month allowing illegal immigrants to work on farms there if they first get guest-worker status from the state. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert has praised the legislation as the “Utah solution,” while critics blasted the proposal as de facto amnesty.
In South Carolina, Arthur Black, a peach grower, and president of the York County Farm Bureau, said he hired undocumented workers at times, helping several of them go through the process to become legal. Mr. Black, who is 61 years old and has been farming for three decades, says he opposes an Arizona-style bill that is now moving through the South Carolina Legislature.
“The [legislators] are listening to their constituents who want all these immigrants out of the country, but when they wake up hungry one of these days, they’re going to wonder who is going to pick the crops,” said Mr. Black.
The Indiana Farm Bureau has joined the Indiana Chamber of Commerce in fighting an Arizona-style bill in that state, saying it is unrealistic given what they say are delays in the federal guest-worker program.
“People don’t try to hire illegal workers, but if your crop is going to spoil, and you’ve got this one shot at income through the year, you’re going to hire whoever comes to your door,” said Kent Yeager, the farm bureau’s director of public policy.
The Indiana bill passed the Senate, but now, the head of the Senate’s powerful appropriations committee—voicing support for the Utah approach—has suggested it be revamped.
In Florida, Rep. William Snyder, a Republican and a sponsor of an immigration bill in that state, says the legislation would help agricultural employers who play by the rules. “Right now, the playing field is uneven,” he says. “One of our major tomato growers hires only legal and documented workers; he’s at a disadvantage because he’s competing with growers who may not be careful.”
In Georgia, farmers like Mr. Pearson and Mr. Ray say that unless the federal government expands its guest-worker program, called H-2A, strict enforcement of immigration laws would choke U.S. agriculture.
Immigration bills recently passed by Georgia’s House and Senate would require businesses with four or more employees to use E-Verify, a federal program that lets employers check to see if workers are in the U.S. legally.
The Georgia Farm Bureau and other groups lobbied to modify the bills, securing an exemption in the Senate version for businesses using the federal guest-worker program. The two chambers are set to work on a compromise bill.